Is the new more casual Saffron also more affordable?

25-SaffroninteriorThursday was Carol’s birthday, so we (Carol, her sister, her niece and I) went for dinner to her favorite restaurant – Saffron in the Warehouse District. I had dined at Saffron earlier this year when the owners – chef Sameh Wadi and his brother Saed – put on a press event to get out the word that their restaurant isn’t just for special occasions. The message was supposed to be, you can have a satisfying dining experience at Saffron without spending an arm and a leg.

To get this message out  they invited a bunch of food writers to come as their guests and order anything and everything they wanted, compliments of the house. (They also got rid of the white tablecloths, which apparently some diners found intimidating.) This turned out to be a terrific gastronomic experience – my friend Lu Lippold wrote about it for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. But since all of us food writers gorged ourselves, and didn’t have to pay for any of it (though we did pay for our drinks), it provided no evidence for the proposition that the Wadis were trying to put across.

Saffron Lamb BLTSo I left that prior dinner very content, but still wondering whether it is actually possible to really enjoy the Saffron dining experience on a modest budget. (Saed Wadi had claimed that you could, for example, order the lamb BLT ($8) and a beer, and spend less than you would for a beer and a burger at the new Twins ballpark nearby. Or maybe that was my example. But suppose you wanted something more substantial than a beer and a lamb BLT?)

At any rate, back to last night’s dinner. We didn’t actually go there intending to be parsimonious, or test the Wadis’ claim- we just ordered a bunch of stuff to share, and didn’t pay much attention to the prices. We started with the mezze (small plates): hummus royale ($9), a family recipe made with chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic and Palestinian olive oil, with house-cured bastirma (dried beef; the ancestor of pastrami) and fried chickpeas  – rich, creamy and delicious; and the fried cauliflower ($6), golden deep-fried nuggets accompanied by a feta cheese fondue, also irresistibly tasty. Sort of the way fried cheese curds are irresistible.

But the knocked-our-socks-off favorite in this round was the slow-cooked green beans with tomato ($6), prepared from an old family recipe. The beans are cooked for two hours, with the spices added in stages. Cinnamon? Nutmeg? Cloves? Just guessing, but this dish is worth the trip all by itself.

Next came a trio of dishes from the salads, apps and and sides section of the menu. The salad of watermelon and heirloom tomato with cow’s milk feta, charred jalapeño and basil ($8), was a lovely and lively presentation that balanced sweet, salty and spicy. (For another dish in the same spirit, try